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Refugee Trails

Personal worked from Oct 2016
Published in The Guardian amongst others.


Since the summer of 2015, Europe has seen one of the most significant influxes of refugees in its history. Civil war, terror and poverty plaguing the Middle East and Africa has driven millions to flee from their homes. Even now, families and children continue to risk their lives following some of the most dangerous trails into Europe for the promise of a better life.

Public reaction has been mixed. Football stadiums cry welcome cheers and crowds march in solidarity while elsewhere asylum centres are burnt down by fanatics and the countries bolster their borders. News coverage has equally been fickle — challenging and empathetic at times, misinformed and incendiary at others. All the while, most EU governments remain gridlocked in a squabble over electoral and humanitarian priorities as thousands of incoming refugees suffer the worst consequences of lacking aid resources and organisational and legal support.

In October 2015, I spent four weeks following one path taken by refugees spanning six countries and 3000 km. I aimed to better understand people’s motivations and circumstances for myself. I wanted to know what it meant to be a refugee in Europe today.

Read more from the group reporting trip with Melanie Cura Daball & Adib Chowdhury here.
Lesbos feels like an age-old paradise.

From where I’m standing, a cloudless sky rolls out, melting into the Aegean. Turkey’s silhouette is faintly carved on the horizon and a flock of seagulls glides past the sun.

This one dirt road traces the entire coast of the island, dotted with small inns and farms, castle ruins and quaint villages. It winds precariously past grazing horses and humbling vistas through verdant hills.

It’s hard to fathom what’s been happening here for the past months. Piled life vests, fluorescent and skeletal, are strewn in their thousands across the pebbled shore: a line of rubber dinghy carcasses and torn clothes, freckled with pacifiers, souvenirs and passport photos.

The sight dwells restlessly in the lower gut, foreign against the morning calm.

We’re waiting, as usual, scanning the horizon. And then something moves. It disappears for a moment and then resurfaces — small and orange — approaching fast.

“They’re coming!”, Adib shouts. And we’re off.

Racing against the rocks

The orange speck to our right has become fully visible now: dozens of arms reaching out from an overcrowded black vessel, a huddle of screaming faces coming into focus.

Ahead a small group of volunteers has already marked a safe point for arrival. They are waving flags and life-vests in the air. Seasoned journalists are scuttling out of their SUVs to the water’s edge. And in the distance a police van flashes on its sirens.

The boat hits the seabed at speed, spraying a surf skyward and jerking the passengers abruptly. Men are shouting praises to God and mothers grasping wailing children. An elderly lady at the rear collapses off the side, drawing three volunteers to dive after her. The most agile of teenagers begin vaulting towards the land.

The scene a frantic blur, a mess of grasping hands and cold water, jubilation and despair caught amidst fear and relief.  

I go to raise my camera but a man wades out in front of me. He passes me a crying boy hurriedly, no more than four years old, gesturing towards his mother who has collapsed a few metres away on the rocks.

The small form in my hands begins to convulse weakly, weightless and shivering —  and fixes its gaze on me — a universally heart-wrenching gaze of a vulnerable child.

By the time I walk over, his father and mother have reunited. They too are struggling to breathe, clutching each other in a fit of tears and relief. The child runs over and buries himself next to his sister, deep within their mother’s arms.

I had followed this story for months and had seen footage of boats coming in. I knew the statistics. But it was not until this moment that the questions in my mind crystallised in all their depth and urgency. To think of all this family must have been through to spur them on this journey; to leave everything they knew behind for a foreign and uncertain future. At the end of the day, it was clear these people just wanted to stay safe, and together.

First steps in Europe

Lesbos now receives upwards of 7,000 such arrivals a day — that’s 200,000 for October alone. The onset of winter shows no signs of a slower influx. Most passengers are younger families or teenagers, hailing from war-torn Syria and Afghanistan or ISIS-fraught Iraq. Often crammed in groups of 60-70, they make their way on flimsy rubber dinghies — intended for only 20 passengers — across choppy waters from Izmir, on the Turkish coast.

Local smugglers who organise this journey are spoken of as violent and unpredictable, demanding up to €1,500 per passenger for the one hour journey. They choose a rider, seemingly at random, to man the motor, and equip the others with cheap, swimming pool life vests and plastic whistles to wave down the coast guard should their engine fail. A vague direction is pointed out and they are set on their way.

After three days of covering several incoming boats — amidst much jubilation and relief — it became easy to lose sight of the true danger involved. It was over dinner after our third, long day that our waiter relayed the news solemnly — at least seven refugees, including a mother, a newborn baby and three young children, had drowned after their wooden boat and a coast guard vessel collided. That could have been any one of the people we had shared stories and tea with over the past days: the smiling Afghan boy, shivering and wrapped in golden foil, whose first instinct was to offer me a bite of the chocolate bar a volunteer had given him; the Syrian sisters huddled on the shore with their children in hand, FaceTiming concerned relatives back home.

Tragically it’s no surprise that over 3,000 migrants have died or gone missing trying to reach Europe across the Mediterranean this year: Lesbos continues to see drownings every week. On September 2nd, the statistic was controversially humanised by the death of Syrian toddler, Aylan Kurdi, whose lifeless body was photographed washed up on a Turkish beach, becoming a symbol of the plight of asylum seekers fleeing war.

Indeed the world’s attention may have moved from the constant stream of boats to border battles in the Balkans and unrest in Slovenia and the Czech Republic. However, our collective humanitarian failure and the EU’s reluctance to act remain most conspicuous on the Mediterranean front.On Lesbos’ shores the aid presence on the ground remains relatively small. Teams of volunteers, from organisations including 4 Brothers and A Friend, the Kempsons, Lighthouse and Starfish patrol the northern coastline between Skala Sikamineas and Molyvos where boats arrive throughout the day. Larger organisations such as the IRC, MSF, Save the Children, Mercy Corps and the UN then provide severely limited bus services to the official Kara Tepe and Moria processing centres. Those who don’t make the buses have to endure the 70 km walk instead.

Arriving at the makeshift camps, exhausted and hungry, people begin to face their next struggle — Europe’s gruelling bureaucracy.  
The Balkan Route.

It’s a two hour drive from Belgrade towards Serbia’s northern border with Croatia. The capital’s decaying, brutalist architecture gives way to endless sun-kissed fields of drying wheat that only twenty years ago had witnessed their own Balkan conflict and mass exodus of refugees.

Until weeks ago, the border town of Šid, Serbia saw several thousands cross over to Croatia towards the nearest train station at Tovarnik. In mid September, after Hungary closed its borders, refugees began swerving west through Serbia to main crossings like Šid. But after only a week, seven of such eight road crossings into Croatia were closed off, as it became increasingly obvious that local authorities were woefully understaffed and overwhelmed.

Iconic scenes of over 2,000 refugees stranded in no-man’s land between Croatia and Serbia began spreading on social media. Tensions rose and many attempted to cross illegally through wheat fields. The Croatian police struggled to find peaceful solutions as Tovarnik train station’s barren platforms and sparse sanitation facilities became inundated with waste.

Croatian Interior Minister Ranko Ostojić  voiced his country’s frustration, sending another heavy blow to negotiations by EU leaders on finding a migration strategy: “The flow of migrants from Greece must be stopped.... It is absolutely unacceptable to have Greece emptying its refugee camps and sending people towards Croatia via Macedonia and Serbia.” While Croatia is a member of the EU it is not part of its Schengen zone of borderless travel.

The political game of passing the buck eventually manifested in policy too. Croatia reopened borders and it’s military set up a transit camp in nearby Opatovac; but most resources were devoted to shuttling migrants north — on trains towards whichever Hungarian or Slovenian borders happened to be open at the time.

The most common trail now winds past Berkasovo, on the fringes of Serbian Šid, where the UNHCR and other aid organisations accompany refugees across the border to a Croatian police escort. They in turn place them on buses heading to Opatovac where they wait for trains leaving Tovarnik the following morning.

Today, much of the disarray here and earlier chaos of Preševo seems a thing of the past. Tovarnik station sees police and IRC accompanied buses arriving at regular intervals throughout the day. Orderly queues are formed, food and water is handed out and the police handle the crowd movements with restraint and co-ordination. Tellingly, none of the 1,000 passengers or police officers know where any one of the trains are heading.

Opatovac, some 12 km away, seems like a military fortress at first sight, with rows of armoured SUVs, tall fences and boots on the ground. A spokesperson (Helena Biococ) offered us ‘a guided tour’ of the facility but we were denied access to the refugee holding area on grounds of ‘security risk’. After the negative press received in previous weeks it’s clear that Croatian officials are wary of further disorganisation or tensions being exposed.

What remains impressive is the efficiency with which the daily stream of 2,000 migrants arriving in Croatia are now processed and transported further into the EU. It’s clear, however, that this new found efficiency is less reflective of a more humane system or long-term strategy, but rather political expediency.

In the wake of the country’s upcoming election — one particularly fraught with disagreements over migrant policy — the centre-right HDZ opposition parties campaigned on stricter border controls and quotas.

Last week also saw more camps cropping up and tensions flaring along the nearby Croat-Slovenian border. STA news quoted Slovenian President Borut Pahor saying “This is impossible. Slovenia cannot become a pocket in which refugees would be stuck if the Austrian, Hungarian and German borders close, because the country could not handle that.”

Unwanted and unsupported, the refugees seemed to be pushed more and more systematically towards other borders and other camps.
What can you do?

A range of NGOs and charities have initiated campaigns targeted specifically at aiding the plight of refugees. Here are some organisations that outline where your money can go:

Migrant Offshore Aid Station: The charity runs independent rescue boats to rescue migrants at risk of drowning.

Médecins Sans Frontières: The humanitarian agency has three rescue ships in the Mediterranean.

Aylan Kurdi Fund: A specific fund named in honour of the drowned boy was set up within 24 hours of the circulation photographs of his body emerging. All proceeds go to the humanitarian agency Hand in Hand for Syria.

Refugee Council: A donation of £100 could pay for the education and travel for two children for a week.

Unicef: The UN’s children’s charity is providing life-saving supplies such as clean water, medicine and psychological support. A donation of £9 could provide an emergency water kit for a family.

Save the Children: A donation of £50 could buy two hygiene kits including soap, towels and toothbrushes.

British Red Cross: A donation of £30 could buy 28 mats to help Syria refugees cope with the cold.

Islamic Relief: Three families could be fed for a month on a donation of £210, the charity says.The crowdfunding website

Just Giving has a list of specific appeals for migrants in Calais. It includes one of students trying to raise £750 to buy mobile phones, footballs, camping equipment, dictionaries, storage boxes, sanitary items and waterproof clothing.

The UNHCR is running camps, providing shelter and aid to refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, as well as helping refugees across Europe.

Refugee Trails

Personal worked from Oct 2016
Published in The Guardian amongst others.


Since the summer of 2015, Europe has seen one of the most significant influxes of refugees in its history. Civil war, terror and poverty plaguing the Middle East and Africa has driven millions to flee from their homes. Even now, families and children continue to risk their lives following some of the most dangerous trails into Europe for the promise of a better life.

Public reaction has been mixed. Football stadiums cry welcome cheers and crowds march in solidarity while elsewhere asylum centres are burnt down by fanatics and the countries bolster their borders. News coverage has equally been fickle — challenging and empathetic at times, misinformed and incendiary at others. All the while, most EU governments remain gridlocked in a squabble over electoral and humanitarian priorities as thousands of incoming refugees suffer the worst consequences of lacking aid resources and organisational and legal support.

In October 2015, I spent four weeks following one path taken by refugees spanning six countries and 3000 km. I aimed to better understand people’s motivations and circumstances for myself. I wanted to know what it meant to be a refugee in Europe today.

Read more from the group reporting trip with Melanie Cura Daball & Adib Chowdhury here.
S.S